This gorgeous spring weather triggers so many thoughts and emotions. It could make you daydream about weekend beach getaways, lolling around in a hammock, fresh produce - hey, isn't rhubarb in season? A fresh pie sounds just delicious - and wouldn't it be so much prettier if you included a few of those lovely leaves?
Don't do it, unless you're planning on making this your last meal. Rhubarb leaves are poisonous, raw or cooked (they contain a not-good-for-you substance called oxalate). The stalk isn't toxic, although it's crazy tart if it's not cooked and somehow sweetened up. Here are a couple of other ingredients to avoid - or at least moderate your consumption of - this season.
Ever since the Cinnamon Challenge kicked off, I've taken the precaution of investigating all the spices in my cabinet. (Not that I'm planning to start my own Spice Challenge; it's just so I'm prepared if things get crazy at a party.) Nutmeg contains myristicin, a substance that can cause hallucinations, convulsions, vomiting and, in more extreme cases, circulatory collapse. You'd have to eat a lot of nutmeg - at least one whole seed, and generally more - for anything bad to happen. Still, please avoid any kind of spice powder eating competitions.
Also in the category of all-natural ingredients that aren't good for you, particularly in large quantities: cherry pits. Eating them can produce cyanide poisoning; so can peach, plum and apricot pits. Before you swear off all the great summer fruits, note that the pits have to be chewed up to release the toxins - and you'd have to chew a lot of pits before you hit a dangerous level. Still, just spit the pits.
Or, if you're enterprising, save them. According to Michigan Cherry Pit Recyclers, cherry pits burn hotter than wood pellets and leave almost no ash. Plus, it's cheap fuel - at least if you've been eating a lot of cherries.
Is it just me or are there a ton of Sichuan restaurants opening up around the country? (Special shout out here to the excellent new Mission Chinese Food in Manhattan.) Is there a downside to this? Only if you believe that a signature ingredient in the cooking---Sichuan peppercorns, which provoke a wonderfully tingly mouth-numbing sensation---may be toxic. A ban of the dried berries, which ended in 2005, was only because it was potentially harmful to citrus plants, not people.
Here's what the terrific website Serious Eats had to say on the subject: "Like some other habit-forming items, Sichuan peppercorns are actually toxic when ingested in large quantities." But Dr. Andrew Weil thinks otherwise: "Their toxicity appears to be minimal."
To me this has all the trappings of a horror story. Out of nowhere, my Food & Wine colleague Kristin Donnelly started experiencing everything she ate and drank as bitter and medicinal. Scary! Eventually, after extensive time spent Googling symptoms, Kristin determined her predicament was caused by pine nuts she'd had in a salad. The phenomenon now has a name: Pine Mouth (the fancier name is Pine Nut Mouth).
Donnelly used nuts imported from China; however, USDA scientists tested the DNA of 45 sample pine nuts and couldn't get a definitive source for Pine Mouth, which means I can't offer you one either. I just hope it doesn't stop you from making pesto this season.